There are lot of different terms used to describe a person with a hearing loss, and a lot of acceptable and not acceptable terms are widely misunderstood. As a writer of books regarding hearing loss, I often have to bite my tongue when the wrong term is used. I know the terms are not being used with any negative intent. I’ve experienced the wrong terms being used my entire life (try being in the hospital and having your own preferred terms ignored and not feeling good enough to correct the nurses).
So, here’s a rundown of some of the terms:
Hearing Loss: Blanket term that covers all forms of hearing loss, from mild to profound.
Deaf: This term implies that a person’s hearing is in the profound range, meaning they have “absence of useful hearing.” Some deaf people can still hear sounds, some hear nothing at all. Some speak. Some do not.
D/deaf: In the Deaf Community there is a thing called “little d” and “big d.” Simply put, someone who identifies as Deaf (big d) is a culturally deaf person. They are a part of the Deaf Community. Someone who identifies as deaf (little d) is just that, deaf. They are probably in the hearing community and might not know ASL, prefer speaking to the best of their ability. There is no right or wrong here, but with every book I write I am explaining my usage of D/deaf. Because when discussing deafness as a disability, there is no “big d,” that term is reserved for statements involving identity.
Hard of Hearing: This is a term for someone with some hearing loss. This person is not deaf, this person is not hearing. Often times they will wear hearing aids to help boost their hearing abilities. Like the D/deaf above, a person can capitalize to denote identity and being part of the Deaf Community. As a whole, being hard of hearing is a very vast term. We range from an older person with a little late onset hearing loss, to a person who has significant loss and has worn hearing aids most of their lives, to many variations in between.
Late Deafened: This is a person who normally is born hearing and loses their hearing later on in life. Could be they started losing their hearing as a child, or a teenager, or in their forties. Regardless of when they started losing their hearing, they are now deaf.
Hearing Impaired: Uh uh. No, just no. Unless you use this term to self-identify—and rock on with your bad self if you do—please do not use this term. We are not impaired. There is nothing wrong with us. And many of us feel our ears make us part of a linguistic community. This term does not encompass all forms of hearing loss. This term is hurtful to most of us. If you pay attention to my writing, I only use this term in the negative sense. And even when I have a character who would self-identify this way, I opt not to.
Mute: Another term to avoid, especially when using a combination of deaf mute. Many deaf people opt not to use their voice. Many have also been forced to speak and go through hours upon hours of speech therapy. Like “impaired” it is often frowned upon.
Deaf-Blind: This is a person with a hearing loss and vision loss. Like the hearing spectrum, this person could still have usable vision, but often times meets the legally blind criteria.
As for me, I was born hard of hearing. My identity wavers between Hard of Hearing and Deaf, and in ASL I often use both signs simultaneously. For one main reason: my right ear is considered deaf. Now, I still wear a hearing aid in that ear. I still hear with that ear. But I also don’t listen with that ear. If someone is talking to my right ear, I have to move them to my left ear in order to comprehend. Yet that ear does okay in speech recognition tests, mainly due to my hearing loss being moderate in speech areas of sound. Another big thing about me: I grew up without the community. It wasn’t until college that I sought out an ASL class that changed my life and brought me home.
Any terms I’ve skipped over that you want an answer to? Comment on it below. I love questions and am happy to discuss. Just please don’t assume what terms I prefer.